- Nishna Mehta
A Sea of Change
Photo by Chetana B. P.
It is a quiet sunny afternoon on the island of Havelock in the Andamans. You can hear the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks. A sound that would definitely put you to sleep. While the rest of the town is enjoying its afternoon siesta, Chetana, who is just back from school, is wide awake. She is lost in her new book about the corals of the world that mummy bought for her on her 12th birthday.
“Help! Help!”, suddenly, she hears a muffled cry for help; coming from the book! She quickly puts on her diving gear and dives into the book. The coral graveyard she has just entered bustles with snails, crabs, shrimps and small fish scattering about with her entry into the water. She looks around at the contrast between the colourless branching corals and the bright colours of the life around it as Ocho the octopus peeps from behind one of them. “Hi Chetana, this is an unusual time for your visit. What happened, everything okay?”, asked Ocho. “I was reading my new book of corals and heard a cry for help and immediately came here. Do you know where it is coming from?”, said Chetana. “I think I know where it must be coming from but I’m not sure. You can ask Camu the Potato Grouper. He would know exactly what is going on. The damselfish will show you the way to his territory. You will have to go deeper than your usual dive. Will you be okay?”, said Ocho. Chetana nodded with confidence. The shiny Sergeant Major Damselfish come together making an arrow in the direction of Camu’s territory deeper down.
Camu, the 40-year-old Potato Grouper, is hiding behind a big dead Acropora, a branching coral. He is waiting for his prey, a lobster, to pass by his hiding place. As soon as the lobster comes closer, Camu comes out of hiding, opens his big mouth, gobbles up the lobster and turns around to find somewhere to rest. Chetana witnesses the massive fish hunt in awe, so ironically calm and gentle. Camu notices her. She puts her hand out. Camu slowly approaches her. She admires his brownish-grey colour and potato-shaped patches on his skin. Then, she stares at the scars of fishing hooks on his mouth. “Aren’t you scared?”, asked Camu. “Are you Camu the Potato Grouper? I have heard a lot about you from my parents. The entire island thought you had been fished out”, said Chetana.
Photo by Umeed Mistry
“I have been caught by a number of fishing lines but I managed to escape. Since then I have been hiding in the depths. I only come here to hunt when there are no humans around. What are you doing here? Diving sites are closed at this time of the year”, said Camu. “I live by the shore here. I was reading my new book of corals and heard a cry for help from inside the book and immediately came here. Ocho the octopus asked me to come and see you”, said Chetana. “Well, as you can see, this colourless stretch of corals has been asking for help for a long time now. But they have slowly learnt how to adapt to it”, said Camu. “Help! Help!”, Chetana hears the same voice again. Slightly louder than what she heard when she was in her room. “I think I know where the voice you heard is coming from”, said Camu.
They swim deeper into the sea and see a bright Montipora plate coral. “Wow, these corals look so different from the ones I saw where I met you, Camu!”, said Chetana in awe. “Yes, we settled here just a year ago. Our older generations have bleached and died a number of times but we still keep coming back in the hope for some change and to provide a home to the fish, slugs and crabs”, said the coral. “It’s good to see that you keep coming back for the community. It also helps that you can grow and multiply so fast. I’ll leave you to settle in now”, said Camu. “Help! Help!”, Chetana hears the same voice yet again. Chetana and Camu start swimming further following that voice.
They approach a huge Porites, a hard stony coral. “That looks like a hill! And it also has colourful little trees on it!”, said Chetana. “Those are the Christmas Tree Worms”, says Camu, chuckling.
Photo by Umeed Mistry
“And the Porites look so fresh and colourful! What’s the secret behind their health?”, asked Chetana. “We grow very very slowly and have been around for many many years. We have found our ways to slow down the bleaching process for us. We secrete a layer of mucus and build a soft protective cover around us. This helps us avoid injuries from other particles and also works as a heat resistant blanket. It helps but it gets very tiring to constantly focus on extra tasks other than our basic needs” said the coral. Chetana slowly swims around the massive boulder to take a closer look. The Christmas Tree Worms quickly shrunk back into the coral feeling the ripples of Chetana’s movement. “It’s okay, she is a friend. You can come out”, said Camu. The festive worms came out of their tubes. It looked like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming. “There were many more Christmas Tree Worms living here when I was younger. They were everywhere! But their numbers have gone down over the years because of lots of corals dying”, said Camu. “Help! Help!”, the same voice, even louder this time.
They follow the reef further and come to a seemingly deep drop, like the edge of a cliff. Camu leads the way and says, “Don’t worry, just follow this wall and swim straight down”. They swim along a wall with lots of tiny sponges, sea squirts, feather stars, corals, anemone and other small animals. “It’s like walking through an art gallery!”, said Chetana.
Video by Chetana B P
Further down, they spot a Green Turtle scratching the top of its shell against a hard coral. Suddenly, a Moray Eel appears out of a cave in the wall, startles the turtle and swims away. “I’ll send a Cleaner Wrasse your way”, it calls out and disappears out into the sea. The turtle goes back to scratching its shell on the hard coral. “What is that turtle doing, Camu?”, asked Chetana. “He is indulging in some self-care. He is scratching his shell to get rid of unwanted algae and barnacles and maintain hygiene. I wonder where the turtles will be able to groom themselves when the reef dies”, said Camu.
They arrive at a depth of about 30 metres with strong currents. Chetana struggles to stay still while every other animal around her is just going about their life. It feels like a very, very windy day. “First time, is it?”, Chetana hears a tiny voice coming from a tall Gorgonian Sea Fan, which looks rather dull, swaying next to her. She tries to find out where the voice is coming from but she cannot see anyone speaking.
Photo by Umeed Mistry
“Over here!”, a tiny transparent Glass Shrimp, as small as your little finger, violently waves at her to get her attention. “Oh! There you are. I couldn’t see you”, said Chetana. “What is wrong with the Sea Fan?”, asked Camu. “They have started bleaching and we don’t know what to do'', said another glass shrimp. “We don’t want to lose our home”, said a third one. “There will be no sign of them left if they die'', said one more.
“Has the sun begun to set or is it getting dark because we’re going deeper into the sea?”, asked Chetana. “It’s both”, said Camu. “I should go back before mummy finds out I’m not at home but I also don’t want to leave you alone”, said Chetana. She looks around at the dying coral and helpless shrimps. “I will help the Sea Fan learn something from the Porites and Montipora. And you can help us by telling our story after you go back.
Now you also have your new book to help you talk about us. Let’s go back now”, said Camu. Chetana and Camu slowly start swimming back towards the shore.
Jed from San Diego, California Republic, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As they swim, bioluminescent plankton surround them and light up like motion sensored lights as if to thank Chetana for listening to the shrimp’s cry for help. She comes out of the book and back into her bed. She looks out the window thinking about how to describe her experience with the reef. Lost in her thought, she stares at the sea as the moon rises and shines its light on the water.
About the Author: Nishna Mehta is a theatre maker specialising in creating performances and arts engagements for children and youth. With her recent initiative, Nature Narratives, she aims to bring her audience close to nature through performance and storytelling.